Why it helps to have some clients
Clients. If you have a private law practice, it helps to have them. But what does one do to land clients—and more important, the right ones?
I practiced litigation as a solo practitioner in the Toronto area for over 40 years. I do not have many answers to these provocative questions. But let me share some thoughts from my journey, or rather, as Homer might say, my odyssey (not Homer Simpson).
Law school never dealt with this issue. My alma mater, McGill University in Montreal, taught us contracts, torts and evidence but there was rarely a mention of the word “client.” Parties were either “plaintiffs” or “defendants.” I suppose these terms make more sense on a court docket than “client” and “other client.”
After law school, I presumed my legal career was great to go, having scored straight A’s in contracts, torts and evidence. I will admit I barely scraped through international law. But then again, I never cared much about representing some country like Denmark in a possible dispute with Japan over fishing rights.
Before starting my practice, I briefly worked at an established BigLaw firm, which boasted blue-chip clients that included one of Canada’s major banks. This bank had been around even before Canada ceased being a British colony in 1867. Furthermore, the bank and its ancestral iterations had been clients of this iconic firm all along.
The firm made me sign a noncompete agreement to not poach its clients in the event that I left. I suppose it feared I might get ambitious and invite the bank’s CEO for coffee and entice him to move the bank’s business to me. The thought did, of course, cross my mind. I would have had to be careful, though, to not let on to the CEO of this world-class bank that I almost flunked international law.
I soon left the BigLaw firm and opened my solo practice, but with trepidation. I shared space with a handful of litigation lawyers, who fed me some agency work. My first big break came shortly after my first child and No. 1 son, Daniel, was born. I went to a nearby drugstore to buy some Pampers and I struck up a conversation with the pharmacist, Harry, who was also an avid entrepreneur. He told me he was not happy with his litigation lawyer, noting the lawyer usually delayed returning his messages. He was now looking for a new lawyer who would give him “A-1 service.”
Given that I had all the time in the world then, I assured the man that my specialty was promptly returning calls. I had no doubt I could deliver on this assurance. He soon sent me some business, which helped in keeping the wolves away from my door. I can’t talk numbers, but I no longer had to think about going after that bank CEO.
I did, however, have to butter up Harry a bit by continuing to buy all those Pampers from him, even though they were more expensive at his store.
As a solo practitioner managing a fledgling practice, I generally had to take most of whatever work came along, and some of it was scary.
I recall a collections case in which my client’s debtor—a shady grocer in a seedy area of town—invited me to his store, where he said he would personally give me the cash owing. While at the store, he asked that I accompany him to the basement. I hesitatingly did so without knowing what might be waiting for me. I was glad this was not Valentine’s Day.
The basement was dimly lit and musty. The place resembled my vision of the Bastille fortress and prison before it was stormed in 1789. I almost expected to hear the anguished cry of prisoners screaming, “Hey, we’re here. Grab that torch.”
I noticed what looked like an arch-shaped tunnel entrance. I wondered whether it led into the local sewer system. I thought to myself, “If in the pinch I have to bolt, I could venture through it.” Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables came to mind. I started to empathize with Jean Valjean.
As my life flashed before my eyes, I wondered whether it was a mistake to have left BigLaw. I was certain that bank would never have sent me on this type of mission.
My adrenalin was rushing like Old Faithful.
To my great relief, the gentleman delivered the cash. He even offered me a Pepsi, to boot.
What else did I generally do to generate business? Traditional advertisements, such as ads on buses, billboards and television by lawyers were prohibited until a couple of decades ago. They became commonplace eventually, and one popular resource was a bus stop bench ad. They weren’t cheap. I sprung for one bench near a hospital hoping to attract personal injury cases. The problem with a bench ad was that people waiting for a bus would sit on the bench, thereby blocking the message. I would pass by the bench frequently and was aghast at the fact that these people were so inconsiderate. I felt like admonishing them and shouting, “Hey, get off my bench.”
I did not renew my ad.
I think about it all now and am grateful that I had a comfortable and enjoyable solo practice. But what qualities, traits or tricks helped? You may be surprised.
A good client of mine once told me what he most admired about me was that I was humble.
I was certainly surprised. Who knows? Maybe I am. However, on second thought, if I admit I am humble, might I be proving him wrong?
Other clients would tell me they were most impressed with my penchant for promptly returning their telephone calls. I guess this habit I acquired out of involuntary circumstances after leaving BigLaw stuck.
I also speak French, which helped me attract a fair number of Francophones who felt at ease dealing with me in their native tongue. And one client who had a claim against a large fast-food outfit after finding a bug in his pizza retained me because he just liked the name Marcel. I mention this because some colleagues may perhaps consider a name change to Marcel. You never know whether that move might land you that next client who ingests a bug lodged in their pizza.
What else worked for me? Deploying a God-given sense of humor always helps. You need not tell jokes. I simply had a humor board on my office wall with cute notes pinned on it, such as “Far Side” cartoons, bizarre news clippings and quotes from the likes of Einstein, Churchill and Twain. Clients usually found looking at it pleasantly distracting. And it did melt away the image of stiffness many people have about lawyers. At the very least, humor will help you to manage your blood pressure. And maybe your adrenalin.
These are just some suggestions on how to attract clients. We will all travel our own individual journey or, perhaps, odyssey. Bon voyage.
Marcel Strigberger, after 40-plus years of practicing civil litigation in the Toronto area, closed his law office and decided to continue to pursue his humor writing and speaking passions. His just-launched book is Boomers, Zoomers, and Other Oomers: A Boomer-biased Irreverent Perspective on Aging. For more information, visit MarcelsHumour.com and follow him at @MarcelsHumour on Twitter.
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.